In advance of the 2020 NBA Draft, Peachtree Hoops is evaluating prospects with a look at what the Atlanta Hawks might be considering from now until the selection process occurs. Dozens of prospects will be profiled in this space and, in this edition, we break down the play of Arizona big man Zeke Nnaji.
The Arizona Wildcats are looking to have three one-and-done prospects drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft this year, a feat typically reserved for the Kentuckys and Dukes of the Division I basketball world. While Ezekiel Tobechukwu “Zeke” Nnaji was the lowest ranked of the trio coming out of high school that included Nico Mannion and Josh Green, it’s possible that he has played his way into being the highest drafted among them.
Nnaji led the Wildcats in scoring this past year, and his per-36 minute averages of 18.9 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 1.0 assists shows his double-double potential going forward. His shooting triple slash of 58.6/29.4/76.0 from two, three and the free throw line indicates he’s a pretty versatile and efficient big man. With some improvements to his long range shot, he can truly be a threat to score at all three levels.
Nnaji is an explosive athlete with a good bounce and NBA-level measurables. At 6’11”, 240-pounds, in addition to a 7’1” wingspan and a 8’11” standing reach, he will have no issue facing off with long forwards at the next level.
With his quick jump off the floor, Nnaji finishes at the basket very well — measured at 1.28 points per possession (PPP) per Synergy. He didn’t shy away forceful dunks in traffic and his energy down low was a load for Pac-12 teams to handle on a nightly basis.
Among his biggest assets, however, is his strong fight for rebounds. His effort on the glass is quickly evident on tape, and he pulled down 10.1 rebounds and 3.6 of the offensive variety through sheer effort and a tireless motor. He finished the season first in the Pac-12 in offensive rebounds with 99.
Upon grabbing loose balls around the basket, he was immediately dangerous as a threat going back up with the shot. His possessions that ended in a put back attempt graded out as 1.29 PPP per Synergy. Defenses are often forced to bail him out with fouls in those situations, as Nnaji was the second leading free throw taker in the Pac-12 with 200 attempts or around 6.3 per game. This meant a sky high .637 free throw rate — free throws per field goal attempt.
Nnaji can step out to the midrange and knock down shots. Even the occasional 15-to-18 footer made defenses respect his range and he was a useful screener and popper in his time in Tucson. His shooting stroke is compact and quick, with the projection to add longer shots into his arsenal.
With some significant exceptions, he has decent defensive fundamentals and is quick on his feet laterally when dialed in. He typically defends the perimeter with high effort and solid closeouts in short bursts. His mobility and balanced stance are a major plus in a flexible defensive scheme that Sean Miller runs with a lot of switching on screens.
He’s a plus in the pick-and-roll game as a roller, and his hard turns to basket as a finisher resulted in 1.07 PPP. Additionally, he runs the floor well in transition and terrifies unsettled defenses filling the lane as a rim runner in these situations.
While somewhat of a dying art, Nnaji has some good post moves at 1.00 PPP, and should teams use him in this manner, they’ll have one of college basketball’s best offensive rebounders right there at the rim to gather misses.
His trophy cabinet wasn’t left empty, as his accomplishments in his lone year at Arizona landed him on the First Team All-Pac 12 and Pac-12 All-Freshman teams as well as garnering him the title of Pac-12 Rookie of the Year. As a one-and-done prospect, he doesn’t turn 20 until January of next year and thus offers a lot of room to grow and develop in his current young age.
Nnaji may ultimately top out as a tweener big man: marginally too slender but also too short a wingspan and standing reach to play the center for longer than occasional stretches. While he played the five the majority of the time in college — at least when he wasn’t sharing the floor with former Duke Blue Devil Chase Jeter or freshman 7-footer Christian Koloko — his paint defense didn’t exactly offer inspiration that he can protect the paint effectively at a higher level.
Should this mean he largely plays at power forward in the future, he’ll have to continue to refine his three point shot to better align himself with the modern NBA. Nnaji only attempted 17 shots from that area all season in 32 games, hitting just 5 for a 29.4% shooting percentage. Again, his shot mechanics suggest he’ll be able to add this layer, but it’s one area in which he falls behind the curve compared to his draft classmates.
According to Nnaji in an interview with ESPN, however, he believes he’s shown this ability in the past and will be able to do so going forward.
“I feel good about the year I had at Arizona and I’m continuing to work on some of the things I wasn’t asked to do as much at Arizona, such as 3-point shooting. I won the 3-point contest at the Iverson Classic in high school and I think I’m still underrated as a perimeter shooter. I only took a few 3s this year but I made a few of them and I was almost 80% from the line too. My shot feels really good so I believe I will surprise people with my shooting ability throughout this process.”
Despite the incredible activity on the boards, Nnaji’s motor can fade on defense, especially when not involved in the offense. He has all the tools to be a monster on switches with his agility, lateral bend, and ability to show hard on screens, but head-scratchingly didn’t exactly dominate his matchups when the opportunities arose. Too often, he was blown by from outside the paint with just one hard step from players he seemingly should be able to slow down.
Nnaji is also a below average at best rim protector, with just one blocked shot per 36 minutes. He has a tendency to bite on shot fakes and leave his feet unnecessarily. His footwork in the post — on both sides of the ball — is not particularly refined and he generally brute forces his way to areas on the court. His all around interior defense is a bit disappointing for someone at 6’11”, and he had a tendency to get taken out of plays by down screens.
Even given his athleticism, he’s just not a good ball handler nor does he profile as a playmaker. His .39 AST/TO ratio is really bad as he can make poor decisions in traffic and throw up ugly shots as his only escape.
As an addendum, his catch-and-shoot numbers — 0.91 PPP — are disappointing for someone who doesn’t really create. Gaining the confidence to step out and hit threes will help this mark, and in a lower usage role he can better pick and choose good spot up opportunities. It’s ultimately a fixable trait, but this skill is needed when his speed and strength is neutralized by NBA-level athletes.
Possible fit with the Hawks
Nnaji profiles as an above-the-rim forward with the ability to spend some time at the five in small lineups if his interior defense can improve. He displays good mechanics on his jump shot but his low volume from behind the arc is a bit of a worry toward his chances of operating in a true stretch-four or stretch-five role.
He has bits and pieces of Kenneth Faried and Tyler Hansbrough in his game — both good and bad — such as displaying a high level of activity and physicality but lesser refinement in other aspects. Of course, both of those players found themselves out of the NBA a bit quicker than most expected, partially due to a lack of honing new skills as the professional game progresses.
But teams should bet on his bounce and shooting potential and see him as a low first rounder to mid second rounder, placing him just outside Atlanta’s draft range barring a trade. Still, Nnaji would be a good addition to just about any team as a fluid forward with significant upside.